Roundhouse: the cover version

Long filled with volumes of noise, Chalk Farm's monument to rock and rolling stock will soon house rare books and drawings. Jonathan Glancey reports

The first time I went inside the Roundhouse, London's most famous engine shed, was to see The Who at the very end of the 1960s. Railway locomotives had abandoned the place in the 1860s. They were followed by a bump'n'grind of goods wagons, a torrent of gin (the Roundhouse was leased to the distillers W & A Gilbey from 1869 and used as a bonded liquor store until 1963), a thump of rock in the Sixties and an expletive of punk in the Seventies. The building failed to become an arts centre in the Eighties, but - certainly until last week, unless my ears have failed me - was operating as a venue for all-night raves.

The Who were backed by Elton John, who had just released his first album. So I have long known that the Roundhouse is not just a particularly satisfying building to look at - round buildings often are - but a tough one, too. Anyone who remembers just how loud the The Who played will understand; for, if Maria Callas had ever been able to crack a glass chandelier when hitting a high C, The Who would have made an effective firm of demolition contractors. They may have destroyed guitars and a number of eardrums, but the Roundhouse, testimony to confident Victorian engineering and construction, rocked yet never rolled.

Now, after the worst that Sham 69 and The Clash could do to bring down the house, this glorious old building, looking shabbier with each passing year, is about to find a new and dignified role. If the money - pounds 10m of it - adds up by the close of 1998, the Roundhouse will re-open as the British Architectural Library.

This might sound a little stuffy and hushed after the glory years of The Who and The Clash, but the project makes near-perfect sense. Run by the Royal Institute of British Architects (founded in 1834, 12 years before the Roundhouse was built to serve the goods locomotives of the new London & North Western Railway), the British Architectural Library is far more than its name suggests. It contain multitudes - more than 135,000 books (4,000 of them printed before before 1840), 1,400 rounds of old or rare periodicals, 500,000 architectural drawings dating from the 15th century and including such internationally regarded treasures as most of Andrea Palladio's drawings, manuscripts from the 17th century onwards, 400,000 photographs from the birth of the art to the present day, 30,000 slides to hire, plus an assortment of busts and medallions, architectural models and a huge data bank of biographies and technical information.

To date, this sophisticated library - probably the finest of its kind - has been housed in various locations in London and elsewhere. The library proper (books, magazines, afternoon naps) is housed in the RIBA's headquarters at 66 Portland Place, a couple of hundred yards north of Broadcasting House, while the drawings collection is hung, filed and drooled over at 21 Portman Square, an Adam town house near Selfridge's. The lease on the latter runs out in 2002, so the Roundhouse venture is both desirable and necessary.

The architects chosen for the project are Michael Hopkins & Partners, well known for their handsome, if stocky (and just occasionally stodgy) additions to old building complexes; the Mound Stand at Lord's cricket ground, the new opera house at Glyndebourne and the conversion of the former Financial Times building into a Japanese bank in the shadow of St Paul's Cathedral are simply some of their best-known and most-liked designs. The practice has gradually shifted its stance over the past decade from designing flamboyant and memorable Hi-Tech structures such as the Schlumberger research laboratories outside Cambridge to an instantly recognisable style of building that marries sophisticated building technology to a superpowered spin on home-spun English vernacular, epitomised by the new Inland Revenue headquarters in Nottingham.

The Roundhouse is a natural for Hopkins and team. The building will convert readily, with the expert help of Alan Baxter and Associates (engineers), into a library with plenty of archive and exhibition space. The exploded drawing shown here is crystal clear in its presentation of how the new British Architectural Library will look and work. The logic of the Victorian engine shed dictates the plan and everything else stems from that.

The Roundhouse makes a natural store for drawings and other material sensitive to light; its walls are solid and with few apertures. The circular roof, however, which promises to be quite spectacular seen from below, will bring much of the daylight needed into this great brick drum. Because the structure of the building is a given (and cannot be removed: the Roundhouse was listed Grade II* in 1954), the new library will simply slot into place around it as if to the engine-shed born.

The centrepiece of the Roundhouse is a cast-iron coronet circling what was once the turntable and punctuated by 24 openings from where, between 1846 and 1869, railway locomotives once bedded down between duties. The space inside the coronet will be used for exhibitions. These will be open to the public.

The location of the Roundhouse is a good one given the RIBA's wish to be closer to the public. Its present headquarters, although no more than five minutes' walk from Oxford Circus, has always been off the beaten track; Portland Place is a traffic thoroughfare and not a natural pedestrian route through central London. The Roundhouse, in contrast, is located just seconds away from Chalk Farm tube station (one of those liver-coloured Art Nouveau designs by Leslie Green); this is at the heart of crowded Camden Market and in the stomach of dozens of fashionable bars, cafes and restaurants. Location alone will make the new library both far more popular and far more accessible than it has been before.

Whether librarians and curators will welcome this intrusion is another question, but given their noted enthusiasm, they will take it in their stride. Ten years ago, exhibitions of architectural drawings were very much the province of professionals and enthusiasts; today, they command much larger and popular audiences. The Roundhouse, in its latest, post- steam, post-gin, post-punk, Post-Modern role can only stimulate this burgeoning enthusiasm.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent